Someday, when they tell the story of how digital magazines saved Conde Nast, it will begin in San Francisco’s Caffé Centro sometime in May 2009.
It was there that Wired creative director Scott Dadich asked Wired editor Chris Anderson to meet him to discuss the creation of a prototype for a new digital tablet. Mr. Dadich knew the iPhone screen was far too small to re-create the magazine experience, but it got him thinking about a Minority Report-like touchscreen that could work. Mr. Dadich took out a cocktail napkin and drew an illustration of what Wired could look like on a 13-inch tablet screen.
The sketch worked. Mr. Dadich got the go-ahead to make a prototype (which they dubbed, cutely, Project 13), and skimmed a few thousand dollars off his own budget to make a five-minute video about the project. The video was a hit with Condé executives, who asked other editors and publishers to watch it. It was used to forge an alliance between Condé Nast and Adobe.
Mr. Dadich’s former boss at Texas Monthly said he is regarded as ‘some sort of combination of Jesus and Pele’ in the print magazine design world.
And about a year later, the cocktail napkin would take the form of the Wired iPad app, the first bona fide success in publishing’s transition to digital apps. It has sold 102,884 copies since it hit the market, an impressive feat for a company that had been floundering digitally. Only weeks after its release, Condé Nast executives said they were changing the company’s business model, appointing Bob Sauerberg as the company’s new president to focus on new revenue streams, much of it from the digital experience. And sensing that they might be ahead of the competition when it comes to turning magazines into apps, executives at the company gave Mr. Dadich, all of 34 years old, an office at 4 Times Square, a new title-executive director of digital magazine development — to add to his role at Wired, and the assignment to help nearly every magazine in Condé’s stable create a digital edition.
One result is that Mr. Dadich, who has lived most of his life in Texas, has skyrocketed into an overnight star in the Si Newhouse empire. He is — to put it in terms that have described many before him — the new It Boy of publishing. Having already established his print magazine design chops — Evan Smith, the editor of the Texas Tribune and Mr. Dadich’s former boss at Texas Monthly, said he is regarded as “some sort of combination of Jesus and Pele” in the print magazine design world — it now seems like he is on the road to doing something much more significant.
His job, on paper, is to help editors at magazines like The New Yorker and Vogue manage their time and brainstorm ideas about what works on the iPad. But at a time when Newsweek goes for $1 and the industry is in desperate need for heroes, Mr. Dadich is widely seen as the guy who can bridge magazine design and technology, and bring the business one step closer to salvation.
“He’s one of those clever people who can take history and the future and merge them into the present,” said Platon, a New Yorker photographer who has won two consecutive National Magazine Awards for photo portfolios and credits Mr. Dadich for giving him his start in America. “People have done that before in other genres. Miles Davis did it, Frank Lloyd Wright did that. And I think Scott has the capacity to do that.”
“With a talent like Scott, magazines will never die,” said George Lois, the legendary former art director of Esquire.
“He just has it,” said David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker.
“He will be the spark that ignites a conflagration,” said Tom Wallace, Condé Nast’s editorial director.
MR. DADICH GOT his first big break at Texas Monthly. Ten years ago, Evan Smith was coming in as editor and needed to find a new art director. Mr. Smith had little reason to consider Mr. Dadich, who was then just freshly out of school and in the job of associate art director for a mere nine months. He had virtually no previous experience. The art director position at Texas Monthly had been held by legends like Fred Woodward and DJ Stout. But when Mr. Smith met Mr. Dadich, he knew there was something unique about him. “I had an intuition,” said Mr. Smith. “He had a combination of charisma and seriousness of purpose and a bigness about his ambition. You could see from talking to him for a very short period of time he had a plan — he had a plan for himself, and he had a plan for you.”
Mr. Smith had a lot on the line. Every magazine editor ties his early fate to the art director. Mr. Smith conducted a national search, and there were plenty of candidates, but he couldn’t get Mr. Dadich out of his head. So Mr. Smith called off the job search and decided to make a go of it with the 24-year-old. The business-side people down the hallway cringed at this prospect. “I think in every profession there are people who are born with certain skills and a degree of interests that just propel them forward like a rocket booster,” said Mr. Smith.
Quickly, Mr. Smith’s leap of faith was well rewarded, and Mr. Dadich’s tenure as art director became almost as celebrated as his predecessors.
Wired had heard about him, and after several rounds of interviews, the magazine snagged him in 2006 to become its creative director. He became the first person ever to win both the National Magazine Award for Design and the Society of Publication Designers Magazine of the Year award three consecutive years, in 2008, 2009 and 2010. George Lois said that when you line up Mr. Dadich with the all-time-great magazine designers, “he’s now joining the club.”
But being a design guy for a print product was hardly where Mr. Dadich wanted to stop. “He has business skills, organizational skills, technical skills,” said Mr. Anderson, Wired‘s editor. “This is a guy who can have a deep conversation about Objective-C architecture with one guy, a deep conversation about typography with another and a deep conversation about business models and distribution strategies with another.”
“He always demonstrated to me an interest in the magazine from the 360-degree perspective that most art directors don’t have,” said Mr. Smith. “He cared about the business side, he cared about circulation, he cared about ad sales, he cared about everything, the whole thing.”
IT WAS THE SECOND DAY in Mr. Dadich’s new seventh-floor office at 4 Times Square, and the space was entirely empty, except for George Lois’ MoMA Esquire book, an iPad and a document on his desk that was addressed to Condé Nast executives about the Wired tablet and labeled HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL. He was wearing a perfectly tailored blazer (“You gotta write all about his style!” said Cindi Leive, the Glamour editor), and he has perfect posture, well-groomed sideburns and slicked-back hair with a couple strands inadvertently straggling out, like Alfalfa. He speaks clearly and deliberately in a dry monotone, and the Lubbock native seems to somehow shed any trace of a Texas drawl (“I hide it pretty well,” he said).
“I believe in the power of technology to upend an industry,” Mr. Dadich said. “We see that every day at Wired. We watch how technology radically alters landscapes.
“The only reason magazine design looks the way it does is because it’s the literal, physical limitations of two pieces of paper,” he said.
“With this,” he said, gesturing to an iPad sitting on a couch, “we wiped the slate clean. We have one pane. We have these many pixels. We have this proportion. How are we going to use it and how are we going to tell a story?”
The iPad happens to be the first of these devices. But as more tablet devices pop up on the landscape, it will become unwieldy to reassign the iPad work to outsiders. Today, he has no way to leverage the skills of, say, his art director in a digital environment since it requires two different skill sets with two different programs.
In Mr. Dadich’s ideal, it will work like this: A design editor will open up his computer screen and there will be four images down the right-hand side. Two will be dedicated to tablet devices; another is for the printed product; the last is for a mobile device. The design director will lay out a page unique to each medium. If you’re a story editor or a copy editor, you’ll make a change once, and it will show up in every version.
Condé Nast’s partnership with Adobe will allow magazine makers to use the same set of Adobe tools — Creative Suite, which makes InDesign — for both the printed version and the iPad.
This may be Mr. Dadich’s dream, but it’s not his alone. Adobe and Apple have been warring for years. In anticipation of the iPad release, Adobe had been preparing software that would essentially convert Condé Nast’s content into an iPad and iPhone application. Weeks before the iPad was released, Apple said it wouldn’t allow cross-compilers, and said that companies like Adobe had to build everything using Apple’s own native software kit.
The people at Adobe and Wired engineered a quick-fix solution. They decided to do everything they normally do in Adobe’s Creative Suite package, and then simply use pictures of them — PNG files — for the app while keeping little holes open for interactive elements. The Wired app was a ridiculously large file for this reason, and it takes a long time to download. This is something Mr. Dadich and Condé Nast will have to iron out if they want this thing to have real legs. But it was enough to fool consumers, and the success of the June launch was enough to convince people like Tom Wallace to go forward.
There is no indication yet how the Wired app did in July. Condé Nast will not release the numbers — which is probably a good indication that it’s selling poorly when compared to June — but at this point, people seem happy with the direction of things.
Though three of the four magazines at Condé that have iPad apps have been developed by Condé Nast Digital, the Adobe projects are the most ambitious. Up next: The New Yorker. “I think Scott Dadich is going to play a serious role in developing the design of The New Yorker in print, on devices and on the Web,” said Mr. Remnick, whose magazine is expected to have an October iPad launch. “And I invited him into that process because he precisely understands not only the design so well, but also is interested in making The New Yorker a better version of itself rather than an extension of Scott Dadich.”
MR. DADICH NEVER was a big reader of magazines growing up. He was an arts kid in high school, briefly attended the University of Texas to study engineering, but transferred out and went back to his hometown of Lubbock to work in a bagel shop, where he drew the menu lettering and pictures of bagels and coffee cups on a blackboard. When a graphic designer saw his work, he scored a job at an ad agency. He enrolled in the design program at Texas Tech and did his ad agency job on the side to pay his way through college.
His flyover roots have won him fans. “Listen, I love Scott,” said Ms. Leive, the editor of Glamour. “I love and I think lots of other editors love his willingness to share what he knows.”
“He’s this really nice, fun and amiable guy, and people wanna help him and bring him along,” said Mr. Smith.
Fine qualities! But they would mean nothing if he wasn’t scary-smart, too. “You’re talking about finding a way to make digital magazines in parallel with printed magazines without going crazy,” said Mr. Anderson. “There are so many moving pieces with digital magazines. There are thousands of individual elements with portraits and landscapes and interactive elements and all that. You need to think like a spreadsheet to ensure that you get the product out the door.”
“The thing about the technology is, it is always the latest gimmick, the latest hot thing,” said Platon, the photographer. “It’s very seductive. For me, what makes Scott interesting is his respect for content. Of course, he does have this uncanny sensibility of embracing technology — not even what it is now, but what it will be. But he also has a deep understanding and respect for good design. I’m talking about history of design. That’s where most technology goes wrong. The taste level is shit. It looks awful. There’s no intellect behind it. There’s no aesthetic behind it.”
Mr. Dadich, he said, somehow overcomes this, bridging tech and design. “That’s why he’s powerful,” he said. “He has good taste. He has done his homework. He knows the history of design and art and it’s enabling him to do something with the technology.”
“THIS IS OUR future, it’s a very big part of our future and it’s in our immediate future,” said Mr. Wallace.
He was talking about digital magazines and how they would play a “major role” at Condé Nast and the rest of the magazine industry. “We’re at the beginning of what I think is going to be just a monumental creative burst for this industry,” he continued. “And Scott is the guy who is there at the beginning of this. He’s helping to birth it — there’s no question about that.”
He said that Mr. Dadich’s role, for now, is to instruct everyone on the lessons he learned from the Adobe experience. Mr. Wallace emphasized that the job is temporary, as Mr. Dadich helps everyone else get up to speed. Then, each magazine will go on its merry way and return to competing directly against its corporate siblings. From there, he wants Mr. Dadich to have a big role in the company to figure out … well, whatever.
But what does Mr. Dadich want? “I’m happiest when I’m creating,” he said. “And I would love to be an editor; I would love to take all of what I’m learning now and apply that specifically to something.”
“There will be a point when I will want to go and create content in this model,” he continued, “and assimilate all the lessons I’ve learned in this process into a physical product — maybe it’s an iPad-only magazine, maybe it’s a launch.”
Whether he’s right or wrong, he’s a believer. “We’re only just starting. The opportunities for connection and engagement are so high. The ability to bring in all those different kinds of experiences and all those different kinds of people who maybe don’t think of paper magazines, or who think of the connection that happens when you find a brand you love.”